Is Berlin's public transport system based on trust or fear?
It's a Matter of Honor on Public Transport in Berlin
Most blogs about Berlin's public transport talk about either the history of the stations or how to use the system. But let's use this opportunity to talk about a more philosophical view, one connected to modern cities and how they ought to be managed. Berlin's public transport gives us a great chance here.
As soon as you enter a train station in Berlin, you'll notice that there are no ticket barriers. You can just stroll up to the platform and get on a train with nobody and nothing to stop you. The machines to buy tickets (usually frustratingly few in number) are scattered around the platform, and there is never anybody around to help you. All purchases are made either from the machine or online.
In other words, the honour system is at work.
You'd think this would be a recipe for abuse. Certainly, lots of people fail to buy tickets. These are the so-called "black riders" and undercover agents roam the trains checking tickets and looking for these fair jumpers. However, even these enforcers are few in number (and were often corrupt themselves, according to many locals).
Many residents have asked the authorities to install proper ticket barriers like every other city in the world outside Germany. Various excuses have been offered why that can't be done, from a desire to not deface the historic interiors (well-intentioned but odd, given how many stations were badly damaged, restored and altered over the years) to cost. Conspiracy theories about the ticket checker mafia are never far away, as are stories of actual violence against passengers by the checkers.
Nevertheless, as you ride, have a think about this. What do you think about the honour system? Would it work in your city? Do you feel that, being trusted, you're inclined to act in a trustworthy manner? Have you bought a ticket to "respect the respect" shown to you by the authorities' trust in you? Or are you more motivated by the threat of being caught and fined? Or by the embarrassment inflicted on you by your attempt to avoid what everybody else on the platform honourably did?
And now we add a dark twist to the story. Thanks to a Nazi-era law dating from the mid-1930s, riding without a ticket is a felony, on par therefore with assault and theft. The law forbad surreptitiously using services, which is the umbrella under which non-payers pay a fine at first but multiple offenders are sent to prison. At any given time, between 8 and 9 thousand people are in jail for riding without a ticket multiple times. So, perhaps the honour system is less about honour and more about fear?
The Berlin transport system gets you where you're going. But it's also a fantastic opportunity to philosophize about human nature, to consider urban management themes and to ask how universal our values really are. After all, if it works in Berlin but think it would be a fiasco in New York City, what does that say about the transferability of basic values? Interesting topics to while away the ten minutes you'll be on the train or bus!